Saturday, May 13, 2017

If you build it, they will come

It's not dead. The City of London Corporation has stumped up money to continue the creation of a business plan for the mooted Centre for Music. They are now looking for the right architects, engineers and acousticians to design the great concert hall that London doesn't have. This report in The Guardian explains the latest developments, which include a revising down of the estimated cost to around £200-250m.

Frankly, they could do worse than call in the team that built the auditorium of the NOSPR in Katowice, which opened in 2014. Photo gallery here. Friends in the LSO came back absolutely raving about it (as did Bachtrack's reporter, here). Katowice is a smallish mining town in southern Poland, part of a larger metropolitan area of Silesia that extends to a population of about 5.3m, and it has a hall, home to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, that many performers consider acoustically superior to any orchestral venue in the UK's capital.

The firm to call is the Japanese acoustical engineering company Nagata Acoustics.

NOSPR, Katowice
Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Nagata Acoustics has also created the auditoriums in the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, the Paris Philharmonie, the Helsinki Music Centre, Shanghai Symphony Hall, the New World Center Concert Hall Miami, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall Copenhagen, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and halls all over Japan... Full list and more info here. 

I've had mixed feelings about the super-hall idea. First I loved it: why should London not have a great concert hall to match the finest in the world? Our musical life is still among the planet's best and we deserve a venue that fits the bill. Then I got worried. How will it be run? In particular, how will it be funded? What knock-on effect will it have on the capital's musical life in an environment already threadbare on the funding front (and likely to get worse if the companies whose incumbents provide sponsorship have to move abroad post Brexit)? Would it risk leaching the funding, public and private alike, away from its competition? And can the organisation of it be trusted not to get it totally wrong yet again?

And yet, and yet...get it right and...and the possibilities are endless. The magnificent Hamburg Elbphilharmonie is sold out right through this season, despite hefty ticket prices. It's now announced its 17-18 season of delectable musical delights and seems likely to sell out again. While one hopes that the London hall won't end up costing quite the same eye-watering sums, and that it can be designed so that you can get out at the end to catch your train in under 15 minutes seat-to-door, there's still a lesson here: if you build it, they will come. If the place is good enough, if the experience of being inside it to listen to great music is attractive enough, it will fill up with people and they will love it. And they will love what they hear if it sounds lovable. If we're proud of our music, if we celebrate it and promote it and encourage children to come in and experience it, perhaps the regeneration it brings the spirit can spread.

Detractors say that the sums of money involved would be better spent on music education - and they would indeed, but the fact remains that they won't be, not by the government currently in charge, and the hall's money would come from different budgets, and probably different organisations, in any case. And perhaps it would benefit music education directly if a place like this were to set a high-profile example and lead from the front.

We've had decades of multi-purpose, hall-plus-conference-centre design - but one size does not fit all. Flexible acoustics seem something of a technological miracle and of course it's good to be able to adjust the sound according to different music's different needs. Yet now we would all love a hall that is made for music and its audience, and that has the additional facilities to accommodate rehearsal, community projects, education work and a decent cafe or several. A hall that is designed to celebrate the great art it holds, a hall that is a joy to spend time in inside and out, a hall that welcomes everybody, a hall that draws the crowds and the artists and that doesn't send you home with a headache - that would be worth the wait. At least, it could be, if it's done well enough. (Oh, and it would be nice if there were enough ladies' loos. The Elbphilharmonie in that respect is disgraceful!)

So please, City, if you're going ahead with this, get it right. And if you haven't already done so, please put in a call to Nagata.